It's been a good period for mega-budget fantasy films, but that also begs the question - whatever happened to smaller-scale tales of fancy that do not require vast armies of mythical creatures battling under alien skies? Such fare is, usually, the province of the extremely low-budget independent film, and the results generally run to the terrible and inept; all the more wondrous, then, when something of quality sneaks in.
Mirrormask concerns 15-year-old Helena, whose teenage angst and outrage at performing in the family circus is headed off by her mother's collapse during a show and subsequent scheduling for dangerous brain surgery. Consumed by guilt over the argument that preceded her mother's seizure, Helena finds herself in a dream world seemingly born of her own drawings, cast in the role of the hero who must save the world by tracking down the titular charm and restoring the balance between light and dark, blah blah blah.
Oh, yes, that is definitely a plot out of the Cliche-O-Matic by way of Joseph Campbell, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, but what ultimately saves this from being the leaden duplicate that synopsis infers is the creative personnel involved: Written by Neil Gaiman (likely still best known for his stellar run on Vertigo's The Sandman), designed and directed by artist Dave McKean (who collaborated with Gaiman on such comic projects as Signal to Noise, Violent Cases and Mr. Punch), and produced by The Jim Henson Company, no strangers themselves to fantasy films - in fact, the similarities between this and Labyrinth are going to going to be a sticking point for many.
So the less-than-startlingly-original story (which echoes some of his earlier work, notably A Game of You) is ultimately saved by Gaiman's crack storytelling and his dialogue - which has always seemed fantastic and yet realistic - not to mention a marvelous set of actors that do the material justice. By and large, though, we watch movies like this to see extraordinary things, things which we have never seen before, and in bringing Dave McKean's art to life, Mirrormask fulfills this desire magnificently: this is a world populated by book-craving sphinxes, monkeybirds with detachable noses, and gigantic floating stone statues, hovering above a forest of spiral staircases, that people may climb to them and have slow-motion conversations.
You know, stuff like that. Fantasy.
Largely composed of CGI composited into bluescreen shots, Mirrormask is ideal for the digital medium. Make sure you're happy with your color settings before the movie begins, though - messing with them during the flick will get you into a world of trouble.
One of the first things you're going to notice is the plethora of languages on this disc. This will transcend mere glancing at the list on the back cover, as the standard disclaimers and warnings will be played through before the movie in every single language. I'm used to this on import discs, but it was a bit of a surprise on a domestic product.
The Making of Mirrormask is comprised of 8 chapters, with a "Play All" option. It begins with interviews of Gaiman, McKean, the cast and crew, then goes into adequate mini-docs on the monkeybirds, the stone giants, and an interesting bit where a shooting day in the bluescreen studio is time-compressed and presented split-screen with the finished footage while text explains which scene and how many pages. Making ends with a series of Questions asked Gaiman and McKean at various appearances touting Mirrormask. The difference in sound quality at the various venues can drive one mad, but watching these two old friends play off each other is worth it.
Speaking of which, the almost mandatory commentary track by McKean and Gaiman is similarly enjoyable, and informative when they speak of bits that did not work and were thus deleted, or about unexpected wonders brought to the screen by their collaborators.
Rounding out the extras is a gallery of 10 posters, poster roughs, and covers for books and the soundtrack CD (which has become a must-buy for me), and previews for Labyrinth (though, curiously, for the original DVD release, not the newer Collector's Edition), Zathura, Jumanji Deluxe Edition, Stargate SG-1 Seasons 1-7 and Stargate Atlantis Season 1. A trailer for Mirrormask itself is conspicuous by its absence.
Dr. Freex, 2/19/2006